Descartes is Not De’ Christ

Exploring Other Ways of Knowing Beyond Foundationalism
Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity – 8

The way we think is fascinating. We arrive at certain beliefs, and based on these, we build a structure of thinking. Certain beliefs are more basic, more foundational than other beliefs. Whenever you think about something, it is reliant on some kind of foundational, underlying belief. In modern philosophy, this concept on the way we think has been elevated. While everyone has this sort of general foundationalist way of thinking, Modern Philosophy has determined that the only way to arrive at “Truth” is through arriving at foundational beliefs that are absolutely certain by way of Reason. René Descartes, in rejecting medieval assumptions of authority, submitted that there exist unquestionable beliefs that we can know by way of Reason—he posited that we can overcome uncertainty about what we believe by grounding all other beliefs on the invincible certainty of immutable foundations. This is what has come to be known recently as “Foundationalism”—the philosophical theory that any belief must be “based” on something that is “foundational” and thus immune from criticism. Therefore, the way to criticize any belief is to determine if it is “based” on a good “foundation.” If you cannot justify what you believe by showing how your beliefs relate to more foundational beliefs (you can’t have a “circular argument”), then your beliefs are called into question.

The questions that postmodernists raise to Foundationalism are: “Is such an approach to knowledge possible?” and “Is it desirable?” (as John Franke states in his essay, “Christian Faith and Postmodern Theory” in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn).

Modern Christianity has shown a commitment to Cartesian epistemology that must be called into question. It seems to me that we have placed too much faith in our ability to know foundational beliefs. Descartes is not the Christ. As Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat put it, “The deep blasphemy of modernity is that it made ‘reason’ the judge. Now if you submit your faith claims to the adjudication of reason and you justify your belief in the sovereignty of God or the authority of the Bible on the basis of reason, take a close look to see what is really sovereign and where real authority lies. Reason ends up being the sovereign authority. The Bible has a word for his kind of thing: idolatry. We have taken a good dimension of human life—cognitive reasoning abilities—and made a god out of it, subjecting all else to its authority.” Colossians Remixed, p. 126)

So, while we accept that we all generally think in a foundationalist fashion (basing what we believe on “basic” beliefs), we reject the Cartesian Foundationalism of modernity that says that we can arrive at indubitable beliefs by way of Reason. Reason is not a god to whom we should be bending our knees.

Let’s face it: the only “foundation” upon which any of us base our beliefs is that which we want to believe. Postmodernists even have a “foundation” in this regard: They base their beliefs on the idea that they cannot know anything absolutely! So, it has been, and always will be, a matter of faith: At that basic level, in what or in whom do you believe?

Now, Christians believe at that basic level that God is really “out there” (as the ultimate “marginalized voice”) seeking to be heard. They base this basic belief on the intriguing and demanding story that this God actually became incarnate and lived here among us. Not only do they base their beliefs on this foundational belief in the historical Jesus, but they also base it on their actual personal and corporate experience of this Living God invading their souls and their communities by way of the Holy Spirit—an experience that they cannot dispute, even in times of doubt.

Where Christian apologetics in the modern era sought to explain “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” (a form of apologetics that served its purpose in the modern era but would have been foreign in the pre-modern era and is increasingly foreign in the postmodern era), Christianity in a postmodern era must instead invite people into interaction with this Living God.

Now, if a person is absolutely resolute about not interacting with the Living God, then they are operating on a set of basic beliefs that says, “I don’t think there is a God,” or “I doubt that if there is a God that God would want to communicate with me,” or “I don’t think I could possibly understand God if he did try to interact with me,” or some other base belief on this spectrum. Note that all these are “foundational beliefs;" some are based on “reason,” others are based on something else.

A Christian apologetic, then, must emulate Jesus of Nazareth: It must be incarnational. We allow the Christ that lives within us (through the Spirit) to transform the way we love God and love others. We allow the Christ that lives in our local communities (our churches are “temples” of the Holy Spirit [1 Cor 3:16]) to transform the way we live corporately to transform the world around us. And then we invite people into this living, vibrant life that characterizes the Shalom Peace of God.

This gets beyond the Cartesian Foundationalism of “Reason” and openly embraces that we indeed have a "foundation" for all we believe and all we do--our experience with the Living God in our midst.

Index of this series: Toward a Proper Christian Response to Postmodernity



Scott said...

This has been a good series, Bob. Thanks.

Phil Steiger said...

Bob-I think there is one more category to add to this common critique within the emergent movement: modest foundationalism. (There is an insightful, though technical, chapter addressing this issue in the book Reclaiming the Center.) The way I think things go is basically this: Cartesian foundationalism has been pretty successfully critiqued and shown wanting in several important aspects, postmodern theorists (and consequently many emergent types) have then jettisoned anything with “foundationalism” in the name, and have thus erected a straw-man critique in support of their anti-foundationalist view. The false assumption leading to the straw-man problem is that Cartesian foundationalism is the only kind there is.

This flawed argument, which I see a lot of, doesn’t take any constructive Cartesian critique seriously, and instead, throws the whole project of foundationalism out the window. In fact, the case could be made that the dominant epistemological theory among philosophers is not postmodern anti-foundationalism, but a form of modest or critical foundationalism.

You are 100% correct that when churches or theology raise reason as a final authority, we are committing a form of idolatry. But, modest foundationalism does not have the problem of being a circular argument, and it does not imply a form of idolatry. Rather, it simply captures the way God created out noetic structures, helps create an apologetic that does not rely upon a “reason is king” kind of thought process, and provides grounds for differentiating between religions (which is not easily done with forms of anti-foundationalism).

I really appreciated your tone and tack in this post-I think you avoided the overconfidence some emergent anti-foundationalists seem to put across.

Bob Robinson said...


Thanks for the insights from the chapter from J. P. Moreland and Garry DeWeese. I think (though I am silly to think I am in the same mental area code as J. P. Moreland!) that their "modest foundationalism" may be a nice balance to John Franke's very compelling "beyond foundationalism" ideas.

Good stuff.